Monday, October 12, 2009

Amsterdam, Germany, France

Crossing to Jordaan
October 8
By Claire
We checked out of the botel, dumped our stuff at BW and ferried back to the city center for a walk through the Jordaan neighborhood.

I’m so glad we did. Built in the 1600s as a working class housing area it is now home to artists and hippies. It’s a really appealing neighborhood and anyone visiting Amsterdam should take a look. I would love to live there! It’s a very quiet, beautiful area with lots of plants, making it look lush and garden like. We strolled around, then landed at a Rick Steves’ recommended Café ′t Smalle, at Egelantiersgracht 12 where it hits Prinsengracht. Canalside or inside, it’s very charming. Once again, we ordered an Amstel Bock to go with our lunch. We are hooked on this bier.

We discovered that the mailslots have stickers saying Nee or Ja (no or yes), telling the postman what types of junk mail they’ll accept or refuse.

Another place had a bike ramp slanting down the steps to a home below street level.

We stopped by the Homomonument, three pink triangles within one large one. The pink-triangle design reclaims the Nazi concentration-camp symbol for gay men (lesbians had black triangles) and is a reminder of the persecution homosexuals still experience today.

We were intrigued by this bike

Finally, we walked through a black door marked Sint Andrieshof and encountered a tiny courtyard surrounded by a dozen residences. This is one of scores of hofjes (subsidized residences built around a courtyard) funded by churches, charities and the city for low-income widows and pensioners.

I know I mention Rick Steves a lot, and there’s a reason for that. He is fantastic at telling you about the little things, like Sint Andrieshof, that we would never have found. We like his self-guided walking tours and we embrace his travel style and world view. So, you’ll probably be hearing his name again and again.

We were quite anxious to know whether we would be able to get out of Dodge today or not. I went through all kinds of scenarios on the Ferry back to BW. Screwing a silencer onto a .45 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, was one of them. Deep breathing helped maintain my equilibrium and I kept trying to think positively but it has been 16 days since this debacle began. Walking down the driveway of BW I could feel my shoulders seizing up and an aura of tension taking over my body. Thankfully, it was good news; Homer was almost ready and we only had an hour to wait. During that hour we went over the cost of everything and our share was determined to be €1,700. We had agreed to pay for the transport which included renting a vehicle, fuel, tolls, and René’s time. We also paid for the new clutch. The amount is insane but with so much time to get used to it (we knew it was going to cost us and believe me, we talked about what we thought it would be a lot!) my reaction was to feel that it was done and over with, the money was already gone and that’s the way it is. René took us on a test drive, we dropped him off and we were gone, baby, gone.

The players




We decided to drive as far as we could tonight to put some kilometers on and start making our way back to France. We headed to Germany with the idea of continuing on to Colmar in the Alsace Region of France in the next day or two. We drove until 9 pm then settled in to free camp at a rest stop. All was well until the lights and pump went out. We woke to a beautiful misty morning with frustration once again, wondering how to solve this one. And it was a Friday, of course!

Free camping Germany

Why Me Lord?
October 10
By Chuck

We put on about 4 hours worth of driving before stopping to free camp at a rest stop in Germany. We got ready for bed and Claire flushed the toilet. We instantly lost all electrical power!

Gone instantly was the pleasure of having our camper pump work silently, due to some magic worked by either René or Eddie. Instead, I was concerned about how serious the damage was to the camper. We had no water pump, no lights, no control panel. Among other things, this meant no way to flush the toilet on our late night runs.

In the morning we continued on to our next site, hoping to figure out how to fix the camper once we were settled. I was glad we had not tried to make it all the way into the village the night before, because Suze led us up and down a very steep, narrow road into the tiny village of Cochem – Claire had set her to town center in order to determine the mileage, but had not reset her to go to the campground down the road. The looks of horror on the faces of the pedestrians as we lumbered through the miniscule lanes said it all.

Once we were back on the electrical grid at Camping Pommern, €15, we were able to get the lights working with our AC hookup. That left only the camper water pump and control panel as non-functioning.

Pommern campground

The control panel, in fact, was alternately displaying gibberish and going blank, about every fifteen seconds. Now electrical problems are like plumbing problems for me – I avoid dealing with them whenever possible, since past experience has shown that I am likely to make things worse by tinkering. We determined to call René, even though we knew the contact would be most unwelcome. We asked the campground manager to let us pay him to place the call on his phone. He agreed, for 1 Euro.

René was not pleased to receive our call, but he tried to help – the only advice he could offer was to take it to “someone who works on those sorts of problems” or, try disconnecting the auxiliary batteries for five minutes and then reconnect the cables: This might reset the master control. He also added that the problem might be with the pump itself; but, Eddie (the wizard mechanic) was out until Monday.

Camping on the Mosel. Just in case you don’t know where you are, there is a German flag on your campsite.

I knew we could live without the water or electricity, but it would not be desirable or easy. We decided to seek a repair. I looked at the batteries and saw that my meager tool set would not be adequate. I asked the campground manager if he would loan me a tool to disconnect the battery. Without hesitation, he loaned me 3; but, the one I really needed – a 13mm box head wrench for the battery terminal clamp – he did not have. We walked up to the Chevrolet dealer – yes, you heard me correctly – across the road and beyond the railroad tracks to see if they could help. Although it was 14:10 and their sign clearly said that they were open from 14:00 to 17:00 their doors were all closed. I peered into the windows and finally knocked on the door by the service bay; the service manager had seen me and opened the door. “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” “No.” Undeterred, I tried to indicate that I wanted to buy, borrow or rent a wrench; he got it, somehow, and began to point at different wrenches. I pointed at the size and type I wanted. He suggested some alternatives; I clearly indicated the one that would work. He handed it to me, asking ”camping”? I am struck by the trust in such matters over here; there was no question of requiring any security for the return of his tool. Curiously, when I tried to return the tools to the camping manager, it required four attempts – his office was closed each time I tried!

The rest of the day was spent driving from village to village trying to find someone who would effect a cure for our ailing camping car. We tried driving along the Mosel to find a mechanic or automotive electrician; we soon gave up, realizing that by the time we would see a place, if ever, we would already be past it and unable to turn around easily; and, there is often no place to park a vehicle as large as Homer. It took only two such efforts to learn this lesson. Next, we decided to drive to the Mercedes-Benz dealer back in Cochem; a young man there spoke excellent English, but realized that they could not electronically diagnose any problems with our vehicle as the connections were incompatible; but, he did know of a nearby (relative term) Fiat dealer! We drove over the mountain – “You cannot miss it.” We actually did find it, after wandering uphill for about 30 minutes. Suze served us well that time.

Driving through Germany

The Fiat dealer had a receptionist who spoke passable English and told us someone could look at the camper in 20 minutes: “Would you like a cup of coffee while you wait?” I said “Of course, may I bring in my wife?” I enjoyed two delicious large cups of coffee from their machine and Claire had one. For some reason, coffee cups here are often undersized. I kept asking if I could show the mechanic the problem; “Gretl” said they would come to me when they were ready. They got the car up on the lift and still had not consulted with me, although they did have the receptionist’s version of the problem; it seemed so odd that they wouldn’t allow me to simply point to the control panel and to the faucet to indicate the problems. Maybe this is the German way – their way? Finally, the owner’s son, came up to clarify the problem. Seems they thought the vehicle’s water pump was the problem – so much for communication. We finally did clarify: “We cannot solve your problem; we do not work on Camping Cars.” But, here is the address (but not the phone number or name of the company.) They charged me €10 for the service and let me go. Foolishly, I did not think to have them call ahead to ensure the next site would be open at this time on Friday – this place was another 30km away. Turns out that no one knew exactly which place did the repairs even though there was a camping retail store on the street and at least a dozen campers spread along the street. The place that seemed right had been closed for the weekend long before we arrived.

German toilet at Fiat Dealership—note the lid on the urinal—spotless.

We greatly enjoyed our little excursion through the village of Pommern, scouting out a place for dinner.

Fall colors

Garage Door

We found a nice little place and got ready to order a good dark beer, completely forgetting that this is the Mosel wine region! The only beer they had was a Pilsner which was adequate but lacking in robustness. We felt like fools while everyone around us drank the local wine.

We resolved to return to our camping spot and take off the next morning for Burg Eltz, a spectacular little castle along the Mosel. The next morning I decided to try one last thing that might reset the control panel; I pulled out the handy €9 Ikea toolkit and used its smallest Phillips head screwdriver to remove the cover plate. It seemed like the ribbon cable provided the power, so I removed that, waited a minute, and then replaced it into its socket. Voila! The panel now displayed properly, even though it was now in German (or French?) The pump worked, and René’s advice about breaking electrical contact was correct; I had probably failed to do this at the batteries because I could only reach one positive and one negative pole – each from a different battery.

Camping Pommern-morning

It rained heavily last night and we did not want to ride our bikes – I have no front fender – and neither of us relished a hike in the rain. So, we skipped Burg Eltz in Germany and drove through the Alsace-Lorraine region of France to Eguisheim, a gem of a town festooned with flowers and quintessentially quaint houses and cobblestoned streets.

Alsace view

It is touristy and has a wine-tasting shop about every other building; but, the weather is wet and it is late in the season; so, the crowds are tolerable. We became tourists ourselves; although we could not figure out how the tasting rooms worked and did not want to buy – and store – a small case of wine, we did purchase two salamis (blueberry and rosemary-thyme; we passed on the donkey salami), a slice of strong muenster cheese – we liked it, but cannot recall the name – and a package of mixed macaroons – rum-raisin, café, chocolate and almond.

Eguisheim, pronounced Aye-gush-I'm

Salami seller

Thyme/rosemary and blueberry salami

We love our little Camping Des Trois Chateaux, €13 – the newest of 3 campgrounds, just 5 minutes walk into town. We leaped at the chance to use their brand new washer and drier to do our sheets and jeans. The cost is extravagant, but ordinary over here – €4.50 to wash and €2.50 to dry. I have worn my jeans every single day I have been here; I guess it was time.

Colmar, France
October 11
By Claire
I am blinded by beauty. Biking into Colmar this morning I felt exhilarated by the crisp morning air and looked up at the temperature gauge as we flew downhill through the town of Eguisheim and saw that it was 13°, about 54° F. I was glad I’d worn my jacket and gloves. No one was around and the changing colors of the vineyards were gorgeous. The ringing of the church bells added to the scene. After about 10 minutes, we stripped off our jackets and realized that once again, we were lost. Somehow, the ramp leading up to the highway just didn’t feel right. We rode back aways, looked at the map the woman in reception had given us, and finally found Rue de Colmar which took us through the vineyards on the Route de Vin, a popular road that stretches 90 miles through vineyards, villages and feudal fortresses. Our route was only 8 km. It’s hard not to stop every few minutes to take in the hills, alive with grapevines. From a distance they are every color of yellow, chartreuse and green.

Jumping from one country to the next scrambles my brains when it comes to language—not that I know any. But the simple things like guten tag and bonjour started getting mixed up. While we were biking along we passed other bikers but I just couldn’t think of what to say to ask if we were going the right way. I finally came up with a cheery “Colmar?” while pointing ahead of us. “Oui” came the reply which was reassuring. After awhile we came to a fork in the road (of course) but along came some joggers. We pulled over and asked about Colmar. One guy poured forth with rapid French and I did manage to pick out “pont” and “gauche” so I knew we needed to turn left at the bridge, which we did! We made it all the way into town, found a place to lock up our bikes and took off on another Rick Steves’ self-guided walk. Colmar is amazingly German. We had to keep reminding ourselves we were in France.

Images of Colmar:

St. Martin's Cathedral

St. Martin's Cathedral

Rich Merchant's home, 1537


Butcher store sign

We lucked out with the weather. No rain. It was cloudy but comfortable and we are really grateful to be traveling in the off season with very few other tourists.

We found a bench and enjoyed our usual picnic, this time with the amazing blueberry salami and some great cheese we had picked up at the rest stop, along with a baguette, of course. One apple to share and the ginger cookies we bought in Amsterdam. Heaven. Several people walked by, looked at our spread and smiled to themselves.

We decided to go to the Unterlinden Museum, one of the most visited in all of France but perhaps because it was a Sunday or October, it was very quiet and we had entire rooms to ourselves. The cost was €7 for me and €6 for Chuck, due to his advanced age. The building itself was beautiful, similar in style to the cathedral. The free audio guides made it a great visit.

Riding home we hoped to beat the threatening rain. From the steel gray tone of the clouds we were expecting a downpour. No fear, we had our rain gear in our backpacks and it never did rain. We were back in the camper enjoying a cup of tea by 4. The downpour hit while we were sleeping—and not sleeping.

Biking home from Colmar

A word about living in close quarters. We are continually bumping our heads or bumping into each other. Last night we were sitting at the table, Chuck in stocking feet, me still in my heavy duty shoes, when I knocked into his foot. When I apologized his response was, “I can hop”. Chuck continues to make me laugh. Tonight he kept hitting the upper shelf in our dorm-size fridge with the edge of the milk carton every time he wanted to add some to his tea. Finally, he hit it hard enough to knock it over, with milk spilling everywhere, running down the 19” width of our little hallway, rushing towards the driving area. His use of some choice words and the whole ridiculousness of how we live just cracked me up. I couldn’t stop laughing as he frantically mopped it up. Oh, and that vacuum sealed coffee? You should see how much damage it can do when it bursts open unexpectedly, even when you’re trying to be so careful. I do love the way it works as a deodorizer though. Nothing like the smell of coffee every time you enter your home(r).

More observations: The German campground bathrooms had ashtrays attached to the wall next to the sinks. I guess that was so you could put your cigarette down while you brush your teeth. The rest stop bathrooms in France have ‘eau de toilette next to the soap dispenser in case you want to smell really nice.

The fall colors throughout Germany made me think I was in Vermont visiting Holly. Absolutely gorgeous reds and oranges and yellows and greens. Lush forests everywhere. We really enjoyed our short visit to Germany and can’t wait to get back next May.

We are on our way to Provence where we plan to relax for a few days before heading to Italy. All is well.

Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey. ~ Babs Hoffman

1 comment:

Pat in Santa Cruz said...

I have been anxiously awaiting your next post. So sorry to learn that your problem-solving expertise continues to be tested. So glad that the old stand-by "reboot" has worked. Thanks for the photos of the BW gang. The beauty of France really comes through in your writing and photos. Those sausages are quite interesting. Wishing you safe, non-eventful driving as you head for your next adventure.